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November 18, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Sneaky Good in the Junior Circuit

by Eric Seidman

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Last week we built a lineup of National League players who performed really well last season while flying under the radar. The players either put up fantastic numbers without much publicity, improved mightily on their prior campaigns, or in some cases, were overshadowed by players on their own team. For instance, Drew Stubbs would start in center field for the NL’s sneaky good squad because teammate Jay Bruce received the hefty majority of accolades in the Reds outfield. Brad Lidge made the team as a reliever not only because he pitched well, but also because he improved by around 10 wins per WXRL. Today our focus shifts to the American League, and here are the players best fitting the above descriptions in the junior circuit:

Starting Pitcher

Gio Gonzalez (5.3 WARP): After bouncing around the Phillies and White Sox organizations, Gonzalez ended up with the Athletics and lived up to his promise last season. Reaching 200 2/3 innings—sure to raise some red flags amongst Verducci Effect believers—he struck out 20 percent of the opposition and produced a .580 SNWP. For those curious, his SNWP ranked sixth among all pitchers in the AL with at least 150 innings pitched. Walking batters has long been his Achilles' heel, but he is only going to be 25 years old next season. The Athletics have the making for a very exciting and young rotation, perhaps one even better than the Hudson-Mulder-Zito group.

John Danks (5.6 WARP): How many pitchers have managed a combined 16 or more WARP over the last three seasons? The answer is 15, of which Danks has the 13th-highest total at 16.7 wins. A rank like that should qualify the White Sox left-hander as a legitimate ace, and yet does it really feel like he is thought of that way? Heck, he isn’t even the most popular lefty starter on his own team, even though his past three seasons have been much better than those of Mark Buehrle. Everyone knows Danks is good, but most miss just how good he has been in his short career.

Jeremy Guthrie (5.3 WARP): Over the last couple of years it seemed that a few things were sure to happen: Mark Prior would sign with someone and miss the entire season, Livan Hernandez would somehow manage 25-plus starts without seemingly any pitching skill left, and Guthrie would be mentioned as a fallback trade candidate for a team looking to improve its rotation around the deadline. He isn’t young anymore, only has four full seasons under his belt, and had a poor 2009 campaign, but since 2007 he is averaging 4.2 WARP a year. He appears capable of logging 200 innings with mediocre peripherals, which is actually fairly valuable. Don’t be surprised to see him become the Jake Westbrook of next season, as a solid-but-unspectacular starter sought after by a plethora of contending teams.

Relief Pitcher

Chris PerezThe main return on the trade that sent Mark DeRosa to the Cardinals in 2009, Perez performed admirably for a poor team last season. He produced a 4.14 WXRL, which was good for sixth in the league, and a 1.71 ERA. He is young, team-controlled, and the owner of a blazing fastball as well as solid control. In other words, he is a relief dream come true. I am rather bearish on the Indians next season, but Perez is a bright spot.

Kevin Jepsen: Every team needs a reliever like Jepsen, who can handle himself in high-leverage situations while being able to toe the rubber as if his arm was made of the same material. His 3.97 ERA was not all that impressive, but he put up a 2.48 WXRL that wasn't all that far behind more heralded relievers like Jose Valverde, Brian Fuentes, and Scott Downs. Jepsen doesn’t walk many and struck out 24 percent of opposing batters last season. He might not be used as a closer, but he could thrive in a setup role.

Koji Uehara: Full disclosure—I had no idea how well Uehara pitched this year. Yes, 44 innings is a minute sample, and yes, relievers are fickle, but this is not a forward-thinking exercise. During the 2010 season, Uehara whiffed 31.4 percent of the opposition—good for 10th in the major leagues amongst pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched—and walked just six hitters. At 35 years old, his potential is obviously limited, but putting together 1.9 WARP in a mere 44 innings is no small feat.

Designated Hitter

Jim Thome (4.3 WARP): Yes, everyone and their mother knew that Thome had a great season. The Twins made the playoffs thanks in no small part to his bat, and his resurgence was widely publicized. What qualified him for this particular spot on our team is the extent to how well he produced. Did you know he had a .350 TAv? Did you know that a .350 TAv would represent his highest mark since 2002, when he hit 52 home runs as a 31-year-old in the prime of his career? At 39 years old, Thome hit .283/.412/.627, slugging over .600 for just the fourth time in 20 years.

Catcher

John Jaso (3.2 WARP): This may have been the toughest position to choose, as aside from the awesome Joe Mauer, the well-publicized Jorge Posada, and a mixture of both in Victor Martinez, nobody truly stood out. John Buck slugged well, but Jaso combined a better overall batting line with more skills behind the plate. Those I follow on Twitter would probably debate this as there consistently seemed to be a strange and yearlong lovefest for Dan Johnson, Matt Joyce, and Jaso, but to the rest of the population he is still largely an unknown. He posted a .288 TAv and played well defensively for a playoff team. That’s enough for me.

First Base

Billy Butler (4.6 WARP): Butler didn’t deserve to be juxtaposed against Joe DiMaggio on those silly soda commercials, but he has now put together two straight solid seasons with the bat as a 23- and 24-year-old. In 2009, he hit for more power, but an uptick in OBP from .362 to .388 helped his TAv improve from .290 to a more robust .309 last season. His more readily available numbers like home runs and batting average will not stick out to the average fan but he had a very good season.

Second Base

Dustin Pedroia (3.0 WARP): Aside from Robinson Cano, no other second baseman in the league played at a worthy-of-mentioning-here level over a full season. This left me to choose between Pedroia and Ian Kinsler, and I went with the former largely because his injuries prevented many from remembering how well he was playing. In 351 PA, he hit .288/.367/.493, which represents his best season with the bat. Add in solid fielding regardless of the rating system and it becomes easy to see why he belongs here. The Red Sox hope he won't be mentioned in an article like this next season.

Shortstop

Alexei Ramirez (6.2 WARP): Ramirez provided league-average production with the bat—his TAv was .260 on the dot—and added slick fielding at the toughest position in the infield. He probably won’t improve much with the bat, meaning his utility will decline as his range lessens, but for now the White Sox have quite the underrated infielder in their lineup.

Third Base

Wilson Betemit (1.3 WARP): I am frankly surprised that Betemit did not elicit more “Wait, Betemit is doing what?” reactions. In 315 PA he hit .297/.378/.511, with a .313 TAv and 13 home runs. Always known more for not reaching his potential than performing well, Betemit is still fairly young—he will be 29 years old next season—but probably does not fit into the Royals’ plans given their wide array of talented infielders on the farm. Still, when I look back at the 2010 season, Betemit’s unexpected production nears the top of the list of aspects that stand out.

Outfield

Coco Crisp (3.6 WARP): At first, I thought I might be able to fill this team strictly with Athletics and Royals, as each team employed a few players that produced well while not exactly standing out. Crisp played for the A’s last season but served under Dayton Moore in 2009, and was inaccurately lumped together with the OBP succubus archetype that seemingly attracted the beleaguered Royals GM. Crisp is by no means a .380 OBP player, but he plays solid defense up the middle, adds some pop, provides speed on the bases, and isn’t a complete black hole at the top of a batting order. He hit .279/.342/.438 last season, adding eight home runs and 32 swipes.

Ryan Raburn (2.8 WARP): Raburn hit .280/.340/.474 last season, with 15 dingers in 410 trips to the dish. Numbers like that are by no means incredible for a corner outfielder, and were down from his .291/.359/.533 line a year ago (only 291 PA), but are likely more reflective of what to expect from the Tigers outfielder. At a small cost, a .286 TAv from the position is certainly welcome, and he provides depth at multiple positions with just one roster spot. He isn’t a tremendous fielder but can play passable defense at several positions, which only enhances the value of that bat.

Torii Hunter (5.3 WARP): Hunter did not provide as much offense in 2010 as he did in 2009, but he has put up better numbers at age 31-34 than he did during his age 23-30 seasons a strange feat in and of itself. Hitting .281/.354/.464, Hunter provided a good mix of patience and power, and while those numbers are not nearly as impressive for a right fielder as they are for a center fielder—Hunter switched over in the middle of the season to allow Peter Bourjos to roam free in the middle—it is hard to argue that he hasn’t earned his contract. This does not mean the contract was a great idea to begin with, but rather that the Angels have recouped that much value anyway.

 It was tougher to field a team in the AL due to injuries affecting several positions. I already mentioned how the keystone corner only boasted one player with a VORP above 30.0, while the second-place player missed half of the season. Similarly, aside from Alex Rodriguez—who performed well yet had the reputation of producing a terrible season—nobody stood out at third base aside from Betemit. Behind the plate, it was as if a clear line of delineation existed between Jaso and everyone else, with the latter group consisting either of players with fewer than 200 plate appearances, or players who deserved fewer than 200 plate appearances. Can you think of anyone else deserving? 

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

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